International 20mother 20language 20day header cropped

International Mother Language Day

In 1999, UNESCO created the International Mother Language Day, on 21st February.

And, of course, we could not let this date go by without celebrating it on our Living Dictionaries!

We have asked people from a variety of mother tongues to let us know what their native language mean to them.

Here is what they have to say:

It is the most beautiful treasure in my life, because it defines who I am. The way it sounds when I speak is out of this world and unique, ‘wa kwešiša’ (do you understand). The Living Dictionary is benefiting this language because in our country, prior to democracy, it was maginalised and its growth is very slow. Most of the dialects of the Northern Sotho Language are not incorporated in the standardised language and therefore, are facing extinction. The Living Dictioanry is their silent voice.
Northern Sotho
Matlakala Kganyago, Northern Sotho Language Manager

isiZulu means everything to me because it defines who I am where I come from as a person, that is, it expresses who I am as an individual. It also influences my culture and even my thoughts processes. It is special because it is very reach with fixed expressions, idioms and proverbs and the fact that it is a tonal language, that is, the word with the same form can have two different meanings because of how it sounds and there are words or fixed expressions that are uniquely isiZulu because they cannot be translated into English, for example, the word ‘umkhehlo’ which is a traditional wedding-related word. The Living Dictionary can benefit isiZulu in many ways one of which would be to develop it to become one of the languages of the world instead of it being a regional language. In this way it will change and improve people’s lives and change the way people look at isiZulu and, in turn, benefit other African languages as well that are not included in OGL in that they (other African languages) can learn and simulate what isiZulu is doing.
Sibusiso Dlamini, isiZulu Language Manager

My mother tongue Afrikaans has, through no fault of its own, carried the guilt of association with Apartheid. And yet it is a language of great beauty and diversity, rooted in a merry mixture of Dutch and Malay culture, but richly influenced by South Africa’s other indigenous languages. It is also one of the few languages in Africa that serves as a language of instruction up to tertiary education level, and has a rich tradition of scientific and literary development. For many rural South Africans, though, it is a bread-and-butter language, their primary language of access to commerce – black Afrikaans mother tongue speakers outnumber white Afrikaners.  One also sees this diverse, delicious gallimaufry in the words Afrikaans has contributed to SA English: for example, from foods such as biltong and  bobotie (curried minced meat baked with a savoury custard topping) to descriptive words such as loskop (absent-minded or careless) and gatvol (extremely fed up or disgusted). I think that a Living Dictionary could be the perfect platform to bring a diverse community of language users together to share words from their different dialects, discuss Afrikaans language issues and help Afrikaans to keep up with a world in which technology (and related vocabulary) is ever-changing.
Phillip Louw, Manager: Dictionary Content Development and Technical, OUP Southern Africa

Portuguese is the language I grew up with. Most of my memories have Portuguese words in them: the way my parents would wake me up when I was little, my friends' chat at school, my husband’s vows at our wedding… Now that I live in the UK, I feel saudade of Brazil and my mother tongue. One might say that “I miss my country and its national language” but it sounds much more poetic when I use the unique word from Portuguese – saudade – to express the feeling. I believe the Living Dictionary can benefit Portuguese by enabling people from different regions in Brazil and in other Portuguese-speaking countries to compile their local vocabulary. This vocabulary can change very dynamically so it is interesting that the community can contribute to the dictionary by adding new content in an also dynamic way.
Fabiana de Freitas, former Oxford Global Languages Coordinator

My mother-tongue is German, and it gives me confidence and makes me feel secure in new or strange surroundings. However, having been exposed to isiZulu from birth, I regard this fascinating language as my second mother language. isiZulu has some very special characteristics that do not occur in German. There is a unique way of expressing manner or colour, or imitating the sound of certain actions in Zulu. Such expressions, rich in meaning, cannot be directly translated in German or English for that matter. Examples are: nka (of staring with mouth open); klebu (of pure redness) and ngqongqongqo (of knocking, as on a door). The Living Dictionary can benefit all languages by sharing expressions that are unique to each and everyone of them. In the case of isiZulu, users could be encouraged to contribute and share the ideophone expressions they know and use regularly. One could even start a crowd sourcing contest to see who can contribute the most ideophones.
Sonja Bosch

It has been many years since I left the Philippines and English replaced Filipino as my main medium of communication, but this has only made my native language even more meaningful to me. Whereas before I used to take it for granted, now I relish every opportunity of using it. Its words lend greater significance to every utterance: jokes are funnier, songs more beautiful, stories more engaging, when expressed in my mother tongue. I love the diversity and openness of Filipino—an Austronesian language with a largely Malay word stock enriched by foreign influences as varied as Spanish, English, Sanskrit, and Chinese. I love how it can invest so much meaning just with the addition or repetition of a syllable or two: “Anong sinasabi mo?” and “Anong pinagsasabi mo?” can both be translated to “What are you saying?” but a Filipino speaker knows there is a world of difference between one phrase and the other. In Filipino, “Bababa ba?” is a perfectly grammatical, understandable, everyday sentence. Some people see this as a sign of the crudeness of the language, but I disagree. A language with so much history, that can convey so much with so little, can only be described as fascinating, and will be a very interesting addition to Oxford Global Languages.
Danica Salazar, Oxford English Dictionary General Editing, OUP

I speak a language that originates deep in the Russian Taiga, and whose relatives are Estonian, Hungarian, Mari and Komi. No wonder it sounds suspicious to the European ear. Finnish has a love affair with vowels (hääyöaie is the most famous example), long compounds (määräenemmistöpäätöksentekojärjestelmä is an actual word) and affixes. We like efficiency: why waste multiple words on saying “I did fall in love” when just one, “rakastuinpas”, will do? No need to distinguish between gender in Finnish: everyone’s a simple hän. Speaking Finnish is the joy of rolling vigorous r’s, using proverbs such as “’Etiäppäin’, sanoi mummo lumessa” (“’Onward,’ said the granny in snow), and speaking one’s mind abroad without fear of anyone understanding you. I see the greatest benefit of a Finnish Living Dictionary as giving all Finnish speakers an opportunity to record their language in all its vibrancy. I’ve used English on a daily basis for years now, and it doesn’t feel foreign to me anymore. But I doubt it can ever feel like my language in the way the poet Pentti Saarikoski (1937-1983) describes: “The Finnish language is my window and my house. I live in this language, it is my skin.”
Hanna Heiskanen, former Commissioning Assistant, OUP

My native language is Russian. For me it is a connection to Russia’s rich culture and history which is so deeply rooted in the language that I sometimes use certain words and expressions going way back without even realizing their etymology. It is my identity and what shapes my mentality. Russian is the language I use to think, dream and feel emotions, my inner voice. Here I can’t but agree with Nelson Mandela who said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language,  that goes to his heart”.
 Probably only in Russian can one say: «да нет, наверное», which translated literally means “yes no probably” or “well, no probably” – a phrase which is at the same time affirmative, negative and bearing uncertainty.
Anna Gell, Publicity Administrator, OUP

My mother tongue is Portuguese, and it is an important part of my cultural identity. I now think mostly in English, and this is probably the language in which I can express myself better. There are, however, some basic and deeply-engrained things which don't change: I still count in Portuguese, for instance. As with every language, there are expressions unique to it. Ironically, one that would be very useful here in the UK has no exact equivalent in English: 'friorento' meaning 'someone who is always cold'! Echoing the words of fellow Brazilian Fabiana, a Portuguese Living Dictionary would allow regional variations and local vocabulary, of which Brazil is very rich, to be captured and preserved before they disappear in favour of the standard Portuguese you hear on TV.
Simone Bichara, Oxford Global Languages Community Manager

Do you think you know South Africa's official languages?

Take our quiz!

See more from Explore